More than once, Vietnam veteran Charles Ranew unknowingly switched places with a fellow soldier just moments before a fatal attack.
Ranew said almost everyone has those types of stories from the war, as well as the survivor’s guilt that goes along with it.
“All these buddies I lost, I think about them every day,” Ranew, of Valley Bend, said in a recent interview. “You always think, ‘Why did they die, and not me?’”
Originally from Georgia, Ranew was 18 years old and still in high school when he enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
“I’d always wanted to enlist in the Marines, ever since I was 7 or 8 years old,” he said, noting he wasn’t sure why, but that’s what he always wanted to do.
He enlisted in February 1968, and right after his graduation that June, he headed for training at Parris Island, South Carolina. He became a member of the 1st Marine Division, 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment serving in Hotel Company.
After training, he was sent to Vietnam. He said his job was to be the point man, which meant he went first in line on patrols.
He said the first time he earned a Purple Heart was from an incident Jan. 23, 1969, when he was struck with shrapnel from enemy grenades. He remembers falling down after being hit, and machine gun fire was hitting the ground less than 2 inches from his body before he eventually was able to dash toward safety.
The second time he earned a Purple Heart came on March 31, 1969. He was the point man for a group of seven men, and they were attempting to secure artillery rounds in Quang Nam Province.
Ranew said they came up and stopped near a tree, and he ended up second in line behind his friend, Lance Cpl. Peter M. Nee.
“As we were starting to go through single file, he got in front of me,” Ranew recalled, saying he told Nee that he was in the wrong place, but Nee said it was OK.
The group continued moving forward.
“I put my foot down, and next thing I know I saw blue sky,” Ranew said, explaining he’d stepped on a 155-mm artillery booby trap, which blasted him into the air.
The explosion killed Nee, an Irishman who lived in Massachusetts. Nee was entering his eighth month of service in the U.S. military and was on track to become an American citizen, Ranew recalled.
“It should have killed us all — no way any of us should have lived,” he said of the explosion. “I ended up with over 200 pieces of shrapnel in my body. Still got a lot of it.”
Ranew’s clothes were blown off from the blast, along with all the weapons and ammunition he carried: 35 magazines of loaded ammo, 400 loose rounds that he carried around his neck and eight grenades that had been strapped to the side of his leg. Part of Ranew’s right hand had to be amputated, and he ended up spending his 19th birthday in Guam Naval Hospital. He was there for a month after the blast.
He spent three more months at the Beaufort Naval Hospital in South Carolina before receiving a full medical pension discharge in September.
When he received the ribbon for his second Purple Heart, he said it was presented by the commander of the Hotel Company, Gen. Lewis Walt, a four-star general who served the Marines in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
“He told me, ‘Son, you ain’t supposed to be alive.’ I said, ‘I know it. I’m a walking miracle.’”
Ranew became a lance corporal E3, and said jokingly, “I wasn’t in long enough to get no rank.”
During the interview, Ranew also shared a separate incident. He and a buddy were walking along, and they stepped off a roadway to let a tank pass. They ended up switching places along the road. Just moments later, a booby trap exploded and killed the other soldier.
“It blew that guy in half,” Ranew said. “I had a hard time with that for a long time. … He was a good friend.”
Ranew said he had some good memories with his fellow soldiers of all backgrounds, and he trusted them with his life. He remembered enjoying a rum cake sent by a Jamaican soldier’s mother; laughing at a soldier who woke up and screamed when he saw a “rock ape” creature cuddled next to him; and being freaked out after chopping a giant spider in half and seeing thousands of baby spiders scatter around a place he was planning to sleep.
Following his military service, Ranew embarked on a career in the U.S. Postal Service and retired after 34 years.
He and his wife, Sharon Lynn Ranew, moved to West Virginia about 13 years ago, after camping at Revelle’s Family Campground near Elkins many times and falling in love with the weather.
“We came here for the four seasons,” he said, joking that in Georgia, there are just two: “hot and hotter.”
Ranew and his wife have three sons between them, as well as three granddaughters, three grandsons and six great-grandchildren.
Ranew is currently the commander of the American Legion Post 29 in Elkins, and he is a life member and past commandant of the Marine Corps League in Elkins. He also is a life member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 812 in Elkins, WV, Veterans of Foreign Wars in Elkins and Military Order of the Purple Heart.
As for his military service, he said he was honored to know some true heroes, but it’s tragic how many young lives were lost.
“I can remember all that stuff. It’s vivid, but I don’t dwell on it,” he said. “But I still miss them; they were good guys.”
Source: The Inter-Mountain